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China’s Next Revolution

What do you think is the greatest threat to Chinese stability today? It's the Chinese bureaucracy.

February 14, 2000

What do you think is the greatest threat to Chinese stability today? It's the Chinese bureaucracy.

To be sure, part of reason for the 1949 victory of Communist forces in China was the high level of corruption of the Nationalist government. After paying off all too many officials, and seeing government subverted for private interests all too many times, the defeat of the Nationalists was viewed with less alarm in China than might have been warranted.

Now the tables are turning. Just consider the huge smuggling ring discovered recently in Xiamen. Goods worth $10 billion were brought into China illegally — equal in value to about one-seventh of China’s exports to the United States. The scandal has involved hundreds of officials and even reached into the Politburo. More dangerously, perhaps, the scandal has reached into the People’s Liberation Army.

Corruption has been known to be a problem in villages, towns, and cities, but now it is clearly a blight that has infiltrated every aspect of China’s governing class. In this respect, the China of today is starting to look a lot like the country the Nationalists ruled in 1949.

But if China’s ruling party now resembles the Kuomintang, who will take over the Communists’ role? Well, mainland China need look no further than Hong Kong for an example of a successful economic system.

And just across the Formosa Straits, in Taiwan, it can find a booming economy and a stable political system. Alas, the mainland’s desire to reunify the country could come about in a different way than the old-line Communist leaders imagine.

Or perhaps the “two Chinas” solution is still the best policy? One might imagine an exchange program that sends corrupt Communist Party officials to Taiwan, where they can stay for 50 years or so and learn how to run a modern economy.

At the same time, Taiwan’s current leaders, having overcome the corruption that beset their Nationalist Party forebears, can move back to the mainland.

Of course, the current level of corruption tolerated by the Chinese government does not appear to approach the level in the last days of the Kuomintang. The best evidence of that is the 400-plus officials dispatched from Beijing to investigate.

Furthermore, the economy seems to be on the side of China’s current government — communist or not. In the last days of the 1949 regime, hyperinflation played no small part in eroding the support they had left. China is far from ripe for revolution today. But if the current government doesn’t get things under control, history suggests that somebody else will take up the cause.